Lessons in Black History – Ousamane Sembène and CAMP DE THIAROYE

Ousamane Sembène – Born in Senegal in 1923, Ousamane Sembène grew up in a blue collar environment, working a variety of manual labor jobs. In 1947 he made his way to France, became involved in the labor union movement, joined the Communist Party, and was introduced to the works of writers like Claude McKay. Inspired by his experiences, Sembène wrote his first novel in 1956. Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker) was the first of nine books written by Sembène, who would go on to be regarded as on the greatest authors from Africa. His books often dealt with issues regarding colonialism, racism and the plight of the working man, but were seldom translated in other languages. Sembène understood that his books would have trouble reaching the immigrant, working class and disenfranchised audience of which he wrote, prompting him to explore film. In 1963, at the age of 40, Sembène made his first film, the short Barrom Sarret. He would make nine more films over the course of the next forty years, and go on to become considered the “Father of African Cinema.” Sembène passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, but not before leaving behind a rich legacy of literature and film.

Ousamane Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye - one of the best films to ever come out of Africa

In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Ousamane Sembène only made a total of thirteen films, the best of which — or at least my personal favorite — would have to be 1988’s Camp de Thiaroye. Set in Senegal in 1944, Sembene’s film finds a platoon of African soldiers returning from combat in World War II, where they have fought for the French. Although the soldiers served loyally, they are treated like prisoners of war, held at a military camp with no freedom of movement, waiting for their back pay that never seems to arrive. Having suffered the horrors of war, the racism and mounting indignities build until the situation reaches a critical mass. When the soldiers stand up for themselves, demanding respect and the money they are owed, the French Army reacts by brutally killing the Africans in what has historically been remembered as the Thiaroye Massacre.

Based on true events, in which the French actually executed African soldiers that had served in World War II, Camp de Thiaroye is a landmark film of anti-colonialism and anti-war. It is also one of the best films to emerge from Africa by an African director. Sembène has crafted a film populated with memorable characters that on the surface feels like something akin to The Great Escape…but don’t be fooled. Sembène is so deftly skilled as a storyteller that his personal politics never get in the way of the story itself, even though the deeper implications of the what he is saying is always simmering beneath the surface, like a pot of water coming to a slow boil. A brilliant mix of drama, with bittersweet comedy, the film is a scathing condemnation of anti-colonialism that never seems heavy-handed, but in the end delivers a powerful blow that is emotionally devastating.

Although Sembène made several great films, this was in many ways his best and most personal. Sembène himself had been drafted and served in the French Army, and to that end the film is a semi-autobiographical account of the racism and discrimination he faced during his tour of duty. Camp de Thiaroye is a brilliant film that is emotionally dense and culturally rich, and well worth tracking down.

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